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Richardsonian Redux in Buffalo Renewal Project

A daring adaptive reuse plan finds new life for former mental hospital complex

By Nalina Moses

Transforming a former mental health facility into a buzzing boutique hotel seems like an implausible, if not impossible, plan. But that’s exactly what’s going on in Buffalo, N.Y., as New York City–based Deborah Berke Partners (DBP) modernizes the Richardson Olmsted Complex. The architects have designed an 88-room hotel and convention center, and facilities for the Buffalo Architecture Center that will be fitted inside the hospital's historic buildings, designed by H.H. Richardson.

The original 203-acre complex, opened in 1890 to house the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, features 11 of Richardson's majestic stone-and-brick buildings in a pastoral landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The hospital's imposing four-story administrative building with its two turreted ornamental towers stands at the center, flanked on both sides by smaller three-story patient wards. The structures are in a "V" formation, and are strung together by narrow, curving corridor buildings.

The original hospital's operations were gradually reduced and finally closed entirely in the 1990s. Since then, the property has been divided, and parts were given over to new buildings. Two of Richardson's original ward buildings were demolished, and the remaining buildings were shuttered. The present-day 91-acre complex incorporates the nine original Richardson buildings, as well as newer buildings occupied by the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, Buffalo State College, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The Richardson Complex Corporation (RCC) completed a master plan for the entire complex in 2009, and is now redeveloping Richardson’s original buildings and the subplot they sit on.

“This property is of national importance because three great American minds were involved: H.H. Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride,” says Alex Krieger, FAIA, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and principal at NBBJ, who led the planning effort for the historic property.

Though he's the least-celebrated of the three, Kirkbride's design influence is indelible. The physician advocated treating mental illness in an intimate, restful, residential-like setting. In keeping with these ideas—highly progressive for the time—the hospital was designed with small wards, natural light and ventilation, and access to adjacent gardens and farms for therapeutic agriculture. Nonetheless, after decades of disuse, many of the original buildings were left with a crumbling, weathered appearance at odds with their original purpose.

Raising Buffalo

While preserving the property is a priority, a deeper goal is urban renewal. “Our responsibility was to reactivate the site,” Krieger says. “Our plan suggests a gradual reoccupation of the buildings.” The planners proposed the hotel as a kernel for redevelopment. Then the RCC incorporated the Buffalo Architecture Center to serve as a cultural center for the community and a destination for tourists, and to collaborate with arts and design organizations such as AIA Buffalo/Western New York.

The RCC is leaving its plan purposefully open-ended. Construction is scheduled to begin early in 2014, and will last at least 18 months. The uses for the remaining historic buildings, as well as the north lawn, won’t be determined until the hotel opens. Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, an RCC board member and an architect who has lived and practiced in Buffalo since 1998, says, “We deliberately put our energies into developing a critical mass, and believe that once these facilities are complete, other organizations in the city will want to get involved.”

Reviving the buildings

“It's amazing and slightly fear-inducing working on this property,” says Stephen Brockman, a partner at DBP who is leading the project. He says working with Richardson's buildings is more than a little daunting. “These buildings are packed with so much history and meaning.”

In general, the architects are maintaining as much of the existing exterior and interior architecture as possible, while shaping state-of-the-art facilities. The original buildings’ load-bearing masonry walls, which are two feet or more thick, guided space planning. Since cutting new openings through them is formidable, the new program was fitted into the buildings’ existing shells, and when possible, existing interior layouts.

Some outstanding interior details are being highlighted. Hotel rooms built in the empty attic of one ward will show off the timber roof frame inside. “A steampunk aficionado” would love it, Brockman says. “The original wood framing is full of steel straps and beautiful hardware. We were able to keep these details intact while defining the volumes under the roof.”

The most prominent feature of DBP’s design is the new glazed two-story entrance at the north side of the main building. While its glass curtain walls will look strikingly contemporary set against Richardson’s roughly textured, Medina brownstone façade, the design ultimately highlights the grandeur of the original building, which will remain visible right through it.

Replanting the grounds

The new landscape design will honor Olmsted's original pastoral ideas for the site, as well as his professional roots as a scientific farmer. Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Andropogon envisioned the property's south lawn—which was replanted and reopened in September as a public park with rolling grounds and gently curving paths—much as Olmsted did.

The landscape architects are developing the plot where the hospital’s original greenhouse stood, north of the main building, with orchard-like plantings. This is in tribute to both Olmsted and Kirkbride. “We are thinking about [Olmsted’s] roots, and merging this with the history of the hospital and the Kirkbride therapeutic method,” says Chris Mendel, an associate at Andropogon. He says one option would be to grow fruits (apples, peaches, cherries, and grapes) where the greenhouse once stood.

The new landscape design also reframes Richardson’s buildings. The hotel driveway, flanked by trees, will lead visitors to a paved plaza in front of a new entrance that offers dramatic views of the original facade. Mendel explains, “The building is glimpsed, but not fully visible, until reaching this point.”

Remembering history

While the hotel and architecture center will revitalize the site, they are not expected to expunge its unique history as a mental health facility. Brockman hopes repurposing them can promote constructive discussion. “Reusing these buildings, which have such a charged history,” he says, “could be a great way to bring the subject of mental healthcare back to the forefront.” Krieger suggests preserving one of the remaining hospital wards in its current unrestored condition, to memorialize the history of the place.

For anyone who understands Kirkbride’s ideas, the complex remains a place of hope. As Hayes McAlonie says, “People who stayed here would work the gardens and walk the land as part of their treatment, so it's a place of healing and respite. I feel nothing but joy when I'm inside the buildings.”

Recent related:

Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA: Bringing Architecture to the Public


Deborah Berke Partners’ redesigned entrance to the main building of the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Image courtesy of Deborah Berke Partners.

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The main building will feature a two-story entrance pavilion. Image courtesy of Deborah Berke Partners.

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A section perspective of the new hotel. Image courtesy of Deborah Berke Partners.

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Part of the Richardson Olmstead Complex landscape plan, designed by Andropogon. Image courtesy of Richardson Center Corporation.

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A massing study of proposed new construction at the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Image courtesy of NBBJ.

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The restored south entrance. Image courtesy of Joe Cascio.

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